Boots on the Ground Research

[Luncheon speech for the Poisoned Pen Conference, July 13, 2012]

Sometimes research is easy.

When I lived in Anchorage my house was right under the traffic pattern to the seaplane base of Lake Hood. One day my father was helping me with something in my back yard and a Cessna 206 was taking off with its engine at full and it was really loud. My father, a bush pilot, scowled up at it and said, “There is the sound of someone not flying their own plane.”

I pointed at him and said, “You just wrote the first line of my next book.”

Dad was always my first resource for all things Alaskan, planes, guns, who really killed who back in the day, where they were probably buried. All I had to do was pick up the phone.

Sometimes research is not that easy, but it sure is cheap. Two ridealongs with the US Coast Guard, one sixteen days in February 2004 in the Bering Sea, and the second seven weeks in the eastern Pacific Ocean in 2007, and all it cost me was airfare to the debarkation ports and my food while I was on board. I got to go on a courtesy call on another cutter in the Bering Sea, I got to jump off the side of the ship in 8,000 meters of water, I got to fly a helo off the hangar deck, and I got two <a target="_blank" href=" novels out of it, one of which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Cheap at a thousand times the price.

Sometimes, research is serendipity. In 1999 Alaska magazine approached me to ask in diffident tones that invited a response in the negative if I’d like to travel around Alaska and write about it. On their dime. For five years I did, which produced fifty monthly columns about places in Alaska many of which I never would have been able to afford to go to on my own, and many of those places wound up in the Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell novels.

For example, I went to Bethel in western Alaska to write a column about C’Mai Fest, an annual Alaska Native dance festival that features dance groups from all over Alaska, from Canada and from Outside. Sometimes groups come from Hawaii, and New Zealand. So, Kate dances with the aurora at the end of A Fatal Thaw, and Bering, my name for Bethel, is where she runs after the traumatic events of Hunter’s Moon, and is where Chopper Jim finds her again in Midnight Come Again and from where brings her home.

I went to Kotzebue to see the Kobuk Valley National Park and the yellow sand dunes that look like Lawrence of Arabia is going to come galloping over them on a camel, and all this above the Arctic Circle. And Kotzebue became the setting of a Liam Campbell short story, “On the Evidence.”

On the Evidence

Sometimes? Research is difficult and expensive as hell. I spent this April in Europe, studying anything and everything that pertained of the years 1320 to 1327 in Venice, Paris, Chartres, Troyes, London and Nottingham. Previously, I spent three weeks in 2005 in China traveling the Silk Road, two weeks in Turkey in 2011 seeing everything classical and medieval on offer, and in 1987 I went to Les Baux, all this in support of an historical novel about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west, from China to England from, you guessed it, the years 1323-1330.

How did this happen? I read The Adventures of Marco Polo and never recovered. I love maps, and the first thing I did was try to trace his travels on a map, and then I spent a lot of time and money trying to get to as many places on those maps as I could afford.

Because I tend to read in subjects, after I read Marco Polo I then read a bunch of other books about that time, and discovered trouveres, and pilgrims, and Venetian merchants, and every European nation’s whipping boy, the Jews, and the Knights Templar, and mapmakers, and aristocratic French lady pirates, and chuggis. There’s at least one of each in my novel.

You’ve all heard that old saw, the writer’s dictum, “Write what you know.” Okay, true so far as it goes. Two caveats, however.

First, I’ve written books set in near-earth orbit, the asteroid belt, and on Mars. I know it will come as a great shock to you all to learn that I haven’t been to any of these places. I didn’t have to not breathe the air of Mars to write convincingly about its surface in Red Planet Run because NASA very kindly got there before I started writing and sent back lots of great pictures and maps for me to look at.

cover by Adam Murdoch

The point is I did look at them. I had to do my due diligence in availing myself of all extant research, and so does every writer, no matter what her subject and no matter how extensive and exhaustive that research is. “What you know” is what you see for yourself and what you can look up in books and on credible online sources. Sloppy research is productive only of an unconvincing narrative, and you better believe readers notice that kind of thing.

Second. Research is a very seductive occupation. You can spend the rest of your life looking stuff up. I can open a dictionary to look up Gog and Magog, and half an hour later be reading the definition of narthex, with stops at provost, barkentine and tricostate on the way. Research is a siren song, and comes a time to stop up your ears with wax and trim your sails between the Scylla of cinquefoil and the Charybdis of Cinque Ports, and come safely home to harbor, where your keyboard awaits.

At this point, my personal reference library for my historical novel, collected from new and used bookstores, street sales, boot sales, flea markets, museum stores, and online sources over a period of sixteen years, now includes at a conservative estimate

*116 books, like for example, Sharan Newman’s The Real History Behind the Templars, anything ever written by Frances and Joseph Gies, not one, as I recently discovered, but two copies of Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s The Medieval Wordbook (oops) and a 1937 edition of The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan by James Morier, found in an estate sale in Ireland, which includes fabulous color illustrations of zaftig harem girls with captions like “Your eyes have made roast meat of my heart.”

Also in my reference library are

*Professor Bonnie Wheeler’s Great Courses audio recording of ‘Medieval Heroines in History and Legend’ on CD

*a dozen travel documentaries on DVD, from the Silk Road to a tour of Jerusalem to a history of Venice

*countless historical novels

*some children’s coloring books (‘Je colorie les Chateaux Forts’ being my favorite)

*a bunch of recommendations for reference works from Sharon Kay Penman

*and my very own personal on demand reference librarian.

It is indeed now time to stop researching and start writing Silk and Song. I’ve read, I’ve studied, I’ve traveled to as many places as I have had time for and as I could afford.

I’ve done my due diligence. Time to write.

Chatter Kate Shugak The Liam Campbell Novels

Dana View All →

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8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I am new to the Kate books and cannot believe you have killed both her man and her Mutt!
    Am so disappointed. Now I’m reluctant to go on with the series. Yikes!
    I know, grow up but wow! how traumatic to get so engrossed to be dashed on the rocks so to speak.

  2. Wow, this sounds like a book I will read straight through! Will it be as big/long as Diana Galbadon’s novels ? I always smile when I recall one of her forwards for a Lord John book. (in my words) she told her editor that she had a short story. His response after reading it. ‘Your short story is the length of most authors novels. 🙂 🙂

  3. I have read the first 13 of the Kate Shugak series. Is the list of the books on the web sight in chronological order of Kate’s life? I am reading the books on Kindle and am not sure now that they are not numbered that I’m on the right book now. I’ve just finished A Fine and Bitter Snow and now want to get the next in the series. Please help. It is obvious that I like this series. Have also read the first Liam Campbell book & will go onto the rest once finished with Kate series.

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